On January 3, 2016, after having tapered over the course of two years under medical supervision, a benzodiazepine nearly killed me. I was standing in the kitchen cutting carrots when I suddenly had the strongest urge to stab myself. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before, but I had been dealing with ever-increasing and worsening symptoms of post-traumatic stress “disorder” since starting the taper. I dropped the knife, called my sister to watch my dog, and drove myself to the hospital. Their response was to cold turkey me off the drug. I thought the suicidal ideation was coming from me, not a side effect of the drug. So did my doctor.
Four days later I was released from the hospital, and on day five I began experiencing the most horrific form of suffering, one that I didn’t even know existed. My acute withdrawal lasted nearly six months and I had a form of inner akathisia where I experienced non-stop suicidal thoughts and urges, agitation, and a feeling of pure adrenaline. When I think back to what kept me alive, I still do not know.
The following piece was an attempt to reconcile why some of us in psychiatric drug tolerance and/or withdrawal stay and some leave. I am still trying to reconcile what these chemicals are capable of, how the urge can morph into an action, how we maybe just don’t understand suicide all that well. For me, the suffering was so intense it was too painful to stay alive. I understand how my friends felt in their last moments. You will read their story below. It could have just as likely been me. I’m surprised it wasn’t.
I am 18 months away from that moment and still trying to make sense of the last 14 years of my life in a mental health care system where I took all drugs as prescribed, followed all their opinions and tried all their therapies. My health only got worse, not better. As I still suffer from protracted symptoms, I am rethinking what it means to be truly mentally healthy as I pursue a master’s degree in social work. As we approach World Benzodiazepine Awareness Day, July 11, 2017, we must think of those we lost and be a beacon of hope for those who are in the darkness that is psychiatric drug withdrawal.
Some full names are used with permission from the families, other names and places have been changed to protect the dead.
If you are a person who is sensitive and/or still in withdrawal, please do not read further without support.
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“There is an optical illusion about every person we meet.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I heard the news I nearly collapsed in my bathroom. I felt his presence. It was more real than me writing these words to you. He told me, “Tell her it was an accident. I am so so so so sorry. Tell her it was an accident.” Those words repeated themselves to me for four days until his wife called me to make sure I was okay.
It was a Tuesday. Tim Hunt kissed his wife on the cheek and said for her not to forget to wake him up first thing for his doctor’s appointment. “Don’t forget!” he shook his finger right before he closed the bedroom door. Twenty minutes later, his wife, who was sleeping on the couch, awoke to a single gunshot. I never asked her where the bullet pierced him. I wanted to remember him the way I last saw him. Army crew cut, big biceps, and shiny white teeth with a smile that was contagious to anyone who spoke to him.
Hindsight is 20/20. There were no signs because the only sign that anyone needed to see was that he was on Ambien. A known side effect of Ambien is that people eat in their sleep, drive cars, get in wrecks, and wake up in jail not knowing how they got there. Although Ambien is a z-drug, it acts similar to a benzo and can harm inhibition. Would it be so hard to believe that the medication took away his inhibition?
Josh was part of our online support group for many months after learning that a slow taper was the method he should try instead of cold turkeying Valium. He tapered for over a year before he “jumped off” a tiny dose of Valium, probably less than 0.05mg. There is no such thing as a small dose when your brain chemistry is affected. After jumping, he experienced severe respiratory distress. He felt like there was a plastic bag over his head while trying to breathe through a straw. I imagine his chest felt like it was padlocked and caving in on itself. No matter how deep and slow he breathed, his body didn’t feel satisfied from his last breath. Josh couldn’t leave his couch and had to move in with his parents at 43 years old.
Josh had short brown hair, glasses. His Facebook profile picture was of him sitting on the bank of a shallow river. You could see the browns and oranges of river rock, tiny ripples of white as the water ran over them. Josh was smiling, as if about to skip a rock. Hiking boots and Columbia shorts, a well-worn blue t-shirt. On August 17, 2016, Josh shot himself. I never asked where the bullet landed. Members of the online support groups wrote public posts about how benzodiazepines had killed him, how the pharmaceutical industry had murdered him, and how suicide is not always a selfish act.
Ever wonder what happened to Eminem? Why he disappeared for a few years? Xanax withdrawal. How about Johnathon Davis from KORN? Same thing. Twenty years ago it was Stevie Nicks and Klonipin. She was quoted as saying that withdrawal from Klonipin was worse than her cocaine addiction and it took her three years to heal from it.
Stephanie Eisensmith lived in Bradenton, Florida. She was the mother of two grown children and was a licensed practical nurse until she had to stop working due to the side effects of being prescribed Klonipin for 10 years. Her hair was dishwater blonde, layered and feathered back like one of the Charlie’s Angels. She put herself in detox last December, thinking they would take her off the medicine and she would get better. She was cold turkey’d from 3mg of Klonipin in that detox facility by a doctor.
Ten months later, she was still suffering from akathisia, a rare movement disorder caused by psychiatric drugs. On July 11, 2016 her husband filmed her non-stop moving so she could bring awareness to the effects of psychiatric drug withdrawal for the inaugural World Benzodiazepine Awareness Day. She marched in place like a nutcracker and her fingers rubbed themselves together on her palms as if she were warming nickels in her hands. In the video, she says, “This is what Klonipin withdrawal does to you. This is akathisia. I can’t stop moving. I can’t sleep.” Her movements get faster. Her fingers rub against each other faster, her t-shirt flaps near her jeans. She says, “Okay, you can stop it now,” and you can hear her voice chop into tears as the film cuts off.
On September 23rd, Stephanie messaged me: “Angie, can you talk?” We went back and forth and I told her, “Stephanie, you’re going to make it.” She said, “No, I’m fucking not.” Less than a month later, Stephanie jumped off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Her hair moved fast as her breath was taken and she surrendered her suffering to gravity. It is said that when a body hits the blue water, there under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the dolphins circle the body to protect it from being eaten by sharks.
You wouldn’t know by looking at us. We look normal. We sound normal. We act normal. We came off drugs like these. Yeah, a stigma. Taboo. Don’t talk about it, or they will call the authorities and have you locked into a white padded room wearing only a hospital gown, no shoelaces. You wouldn’t know that we are the ex-mental patients, no longer believing the lie that we are broken and needing pills to fix it. Prozac deficient, Ativan malabsorption. Round holes in our cells that only need their drugs. You wouldn’t know that psychiatric medications are more dangerous than say heroin, crack, cocaine — any of them, really. You wouldn’t know that Ativan did this to us. Xanax. Valium. Klonipin. Tiny crumbly pills that we took as (or less than) prescribed.
The Macklemore song plays in the background — “my drug dealer was a doctor” — but we aren’t even addicts. Every day for years we twisted that lid back on… clack clack clack. You wouldn’t know how long we endured these intense withdrawal symptoms that made us want to run screaming to our neighbors. You wouldn’t know that if we were to do that, they would put our delicate and damaged brains on more meds. Gasoline on a fire. Too many cells left naked after the drug was removed from the system. The biology, the physiology, and the psychopharmacology, they are all abnormal in us. You wouldn’t have a frame of reference to relate to this. None.
But please try to understand that we are suffering, that there is a meaning to our words, that although we cannot quite touch our lives, we remember the way that hair falls during a crew cut, the way the white water washes over the green and brown rocks, and the color blue as it reflects the invisible force that keeps us alive.